One sign of improvement is the growing presence of the quarterback coach. A decade ago the job was a novelty on NFL staffs—sometimes the offensive coordinator filled both jobs—but 14 of the league's 30 teams will enter the season with a man specifically designated to coach the position. This development is welcomed by Gillman, whose attention to the position dates back to Hall of Famer Norm Van Brocklin in their days with the Los Angeles Rams of the 1950s.
"Here's a guy who handles every ball that comes from center," says Gillman, "and still they're just getting around to getting quarterback coaches. It's crazy. If I were a young man and coaching a team, the first thing I'd do is find the smartest guy around and hire him as the quarterback coach."
Another measure of the growing importance of the job can be seen in the number of coaches who have used it as a springboard to head jobs. In addition to Shanahan and Turner, the Packers' Mike Holmgren and the Atlanta Falcons' June Jones are head coaches who won their jobs in the '90s because of their skill in handling quarterbacks. Playing for one of these men, or for a noted mentor like Houston Oiler offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome, can have a profound impact on a career. For every Montana, who teamed with Walsh in San Francisco to produce a system that made both men legends, there is a Jeff George, a bionic-armed No. 1 overall draft pick who began to flourish only after he left the Indianapolis Colts following the 1993 season and hooked up with Jones in Atlanta. Jurgensen recalls watching George in his rookie year in Indianapolis, when Ron Meyer was the Colt coach. "Meyer asked me, 'What do you think of my boy?' " Jurgensen says. "I told him that some of his fundamentals needed improving, that he loathes going backwards, that he throws off-balance and doesn't get himself set. I asked, 'Who's your quarterback coach?' He told me he didn't have one. I said, 'How can you bring in a guy and give him millions and not work with him?' "
Similar questions have been asked before, for example when the Patriots selected Jim Plunkett with the No. 1 overall pick in 1971. "He was not brought along as he should have been," Walsh says. "His life was saved when he left New England. And then there was Archie Manning, who I think was one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. He went through a series of coaches and teams with terrible chemistry that weren't as committed as he was to winning."
Manning is a case study in how lack of continuity can hamper a quarterback's development. He spent virtually all his 14-year career with the New Orleans Saints (1971 to '82), and he played under eight head coaches and 11 offensive coordinators. Having to constantly adapt to new systems kept Manning from blossoming into a pure pro passer early in his career. "I played your typical college system [at Mississippi], a sprint-out offense where the quarterback has a pass-run option," says Manning. "The only time I ever dropped back to pass was when we were way behind."
Recently Manning and his son Peyton, now the starting quarterback at Tennessee, watched films of Archie's senior season at Ole Miss in 1970. "He was laughing his head off," Archie says. "I was terrible. I was dropping too far back, looking behind me—all the things you see when you go to a high school quarterback camp."
Marino came from a more advanced passing system at Pitt, but the real difference was the way in which he was treated by coach Don Shula, a master at adapting to his personnel. Shula had gone to Super Bowls not only with Bob Griese, a good passer, but also with David Woodley, whose physical skills were limited. Shula paid extra attention to Marino, threw him into the lineup almost immediately in his rookie season of 1983 and, since then, has constructed an offense around the medium and deep passes to which his quarterback is suited.
A few years ago it seemed as though Young might go the way of Manning. Though tutored at various times by Gillman, Walsh, Holmgren and Shanahan, he had yet to carry a team to a championship. However, last year, his third with Shanahan as his offensive coordinator, Young, who was once criticized for his failure to read defenses and his penchant for making hasty decisions, evolved into the league's dominant player. "So much of that was due to Mike," Young says. "He created in me a desire to prepare harder. And the more willing I was to get ready, the more he was able to fill me up with substantive stuff."
Toward the end of last season Young and Shanahan were anticipating one another's thoughts as though they were twins. Says Young, "We mapped out the Super Bowl, and I've never experienced anything like that. It was exactly what he had envisioned."
Says Shanahan: "When the quarterback is on the field, I feel as if I'm on the field, and if he doesn't make the right decision, I'm looking at myself making a mistake."